Patrolling the skies

The IAF’s Flying Camel squadron meticulously monitors the Gaza-Egypt border from on high, working hard to keep Israel safe.

Squadron 100 (photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
Squadron 100
(photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
On December 27, 2008, at about 11 a.m., more than 100 Israel Air Force aircraft took off from their bases throughout the country and gathered over the Mediterranean Sea just west of the Gaza Strip.
In an operation code-named “Birds of Prey,” the aircraft – which included F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters – swept in over Gaza in a number of consecutive waves, dropping over 100 tons of explosives on more than 100 predetermined targets in just a matter of minutes. More than 200 Palestinians, mostly Hamas members, were reported to have been killed.
The objective of “Birds of Prey” – the opening salvo to what became known as the anti-Hamas Operation Cast Lead – was to shock and awe the enemy, similar to the way the United States opened its war in Iraq in 2003.
“Birds of Prey” was the result of a Sisyphean intelligence-gathering process that spanned a number of months and included the use of all of Israel’s intelligence agencies and VISINT (visual intelligence) capabilities.
Maj. Omri, deputy commander of the IAF’s Flying Camel Squadron – also known as Squadron 100 – remembers that period well.
His squadron’s Beechcraft Kingair B200 twin Turboprop aircraft were flying daily sorties in southern Israel and played a key role in identifying and surveying the targets. On the day of the airstrikes, Squadron 100’s planes were up in the air hovering off the border with Gaza to ensure that collateral damage was kept to a minimum and civilians did not suddenly enter a strike zone.
In a series of exclusive interviews with members of the squadron and a flight that took us over the Gaza Strip and the Philadelphi Corridor, The Jerusalem Post was provided with a rare and unique glimpse at the quieter side of what the air force does.
While the IAF is mostly known for its advanced fighter jets, the pilots of Squadron 100 are tasked with doing the fieldwork and with gathering intelligence on Israel’s various enemies and ahead of a future conflict, one that according to intelligence assessments will be far more devastating than what Israel has already experienced.
Located at the Sde Dov Air Force Base in northern Tel Aviv, the Flying Camels was the first squadron established in the Israel Air Force in 1948. Its headquarters are built like most squadron headquarters in the IAF – in the shape of a U – with offices lining both sides. All of the personnel wear jumpsuits even though they are not all pilots, although some of them started but did not finish the IAF’s elite pilots’ course.
The importance of intelligence in the IDF has grown tremendously in recent years as Israel’s enemies – primarily Hamas and Hezbollah – continue to accumulate massive amounts of weaponry and embed it within civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, two of the squadron’s main areas of operation. Hezbollah, for example, is already believed to have 50,000 short-range rockets and thousands of medium-range rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Hamas’s arsenal is estimated at 10,000 rockets.
The need for intelligence has not been ignored. As reported earlier this year in the Post, the IDF has increased its target bank in Lebanon from just 200 targets on the eve of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 to several thousand today. The same process is taking place in the Gaza Strip ahead of a possible future confrontation with Hamas.
The underlying principle would be to try and repeat the success of “Birds of Prey” in any future operation. Another operation carefully studied in the IAF was “Specific Gravity,” the bombing on the first night of the Second Lebanon War of more than 90 targets – all homes storing Hezbollah’s long-range Iranian missiles – in some 34 minutes.
In the IAF, VISINT gathering is conducted by three different platforms. The first is by satellites in space, an expensive and not always immediately available resource. The second platform is the force’s growing number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which also fly over places like Gaza and Lebanon hunting down the enemy and recording its location.
The third platforms used are the Beechcraft – called “Tzufit” in the IAF – flown by Amir and his fellow pilots. Their advantage, he explains, is their ability to fly faster than any existing drone and to carry a large and extremely advanced electro- optical camera that is far too heavy to be installed on most available UAVs.
“We can travel significantly faster than UAVs, which provides us with flexibility to get from one area of operations to another,” Omri explains. “Flexibility and speed – that is our advantage.”
The plane is slightly cramped when packed with a journalist, a cameraman and its five regular crew members. Takeoff from Sde Dov goes smoothly and we turn around over the sea and begin flying south, towards the Gaza Strip. The plane is about 13.7 meters long, weighs close to 6 tons and has a range of over 3,000 km. at altitudes of about 15,000 feet.
The crew consists of two pilots, two reconnaissance scouts and the mission commander, on our flight a role filled by Omri. The pilots fly the aircraft where the mission commander tells them to but it is the reconnaissance scouts, operating the cameras, who make the real difference. Interestingly, some of the scouts come from Military Intelligence (AMAN) and not from the IAF, but are integrated as if they are one and the same, another example of the growing emphasis interoperability plays today in modern warfare.
“Look here,” calls Lt. Amir, one of the scouts. “This is the Mukata [Hamas government offices] in the Gaza Strip. Next to it you can still see the destruction from Cast Lead.”
Not much can be said about the camera and its capabilities. It is developed by Elbit Systems subsidiary El-Op based in Rehovot, and is said to be one of the most advanced cameras of its kind in the world. The exact specifications of its resolution are classified, but what can be told is that if you are in a standoff position flying a safe distance from Gaza you can still make out the color of the shirt on the man stepping out of the yellow cab in downtown Gaza City.
As we move further south, we finally settle over the Philadelphi Corridor, the 14-km. strip of land, home to hundreds of tunnels that Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations use along the Egyptian-Gaza border to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Here, the squadron often flies to look for changes along the border. In recent months, for example, since the revolution in Egypt, the construction of an underground barrier by the Egyptians has been frozen.
Most striking is the density and how crowded the Gaza Strip looks from the air. When flying over Khan Yunis in the South, the streets are so narrow that it looks like the houses are all connected, like one big long strip of concrete.
“From up here things look quiet but it is deceiving since it is anything but quiet down there,” explains Omri. “They are engaged in an unbelievable military buildup and we need to be ready with targets.”
The scouts know Gaza and Lebanon like the palm of their hands. With the turn of a joystick, they can have the camera over a random streetlight on a corner of a Gaza City street. All you have to do is ask.
“We know where everything is,” Amir says, as he follows my request and takes the camera over the new soccer field in Gaza City. “We can see them play from up here,” he says smiling. “They aren’t too good.” The enemy knows that the IAF is up above watching and Omri and his men have noticed increasing attempts by Hamas to conceal its activities, firstly by moving underground but also by spreading long sheets over streets when it moves weaponry and sets up rockets for an attack.
“It is clear to me that our existence is a major nuisance to the other side and that because of us they need to work harder and live underground,” Omri says. “Our enemies do not like that we have VISINT capabilities and they would like to impair our operational freedom and be able to hit us.”
While most of its missions are predetermined and based on intelligence provided by the IAF’s Intelligence Command, AMAN and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), no less important is its other mission – to provide real-time support during ongoing IDF operations, on the ground and from the air.
“Preventing civilian casualties is always on our minds,” according to Omri. “We are always aware how a simple mistake can turn into a major national disaster, and we know that if we move our eyes even for one second from the screen we could accidentally cause the wrong person to get hit on the ground.”
In August, the squadron was activated over Gaza in the latest round of violence spanning a few days during which over 160 rockets were fired into Israel. “Our mission was to hunt down rocket launchers and to try and find the rocket cells responsible for firing them,” Amir says.
For Amir, this is also a personal mission. His family lives in Beersheba, a city that was hit hard during Cast Lead and the latest escalation. “There is an enormous feeling of responsibility,” he says.
At one point, the scouts think they see something suspicious. A man is switching from one car to the next in a rapid pace as if he is trying to lose a tail. “Watch him enter the cab,” says Tamar, the junior scout working with Amir. “Now he is on foot,” Amir says.
They track him for a few minutes until they are confident that it was random and nothing terror related. But that is not always the case.
A few weeks ago, they were given intelligence about a Palestinian who was suspected of serving as a senior operative in one of the Gaza-based terrorist organizations.
They followed him for a couple of hours from one building to another until he finally arrived at a large warehouse. After a few minutes, he emerged carrying a number of what looked like long pipes – Katyusha rockets.
“Within seconds our mission turns from intelligence gathering to a hunt,” says Amir. “The countdown begins because we know that he is on his way to set up a launcher and to fire the rocket into Israel. Working with other IAF aircraft, we were able to stop him and destroy the launcher.”
While Omri is satisfied with the squadron’s work, he wishes he could one day expose the entire world to what he and his crew do on a daily basis.
“I would be happy to bring all of those who accuse Israel of war crimes onto our planes and show them what we do and how much we – as a squadron – invest in trying to minimize harm to civilians,” he says. “We spend hours watching targets to make sure that a civilian doesn’t accidentally walk into the strike zone, something no other military does in the world.”
Israel faces an uncertain future. Squadron 100 helps make it a more secure one.